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River For Sale - The Politics of Consumption

Observations from the Edge
Robert T. Nanninga
Coast News
June 11, 1998


Once upon a time rivers were a big deal in America. Life happened along a river. Cultures thrived beside the Mississippi long before the French started setting their traps, and the Spanish littered the continent's west coast with missions. Myths were born in these life lines, as American heros became legend. Commerce followed where ever the river went, and America prospered. From the Great Lakes, to the Gulf of California, rivers were instrumental to our nation's economic, and spiritual life. Recently there was a movie called "A River Runs through it" which had something to do with killing fish. This film could have been talking about America's conscience.

When we think of rivers, we never think close to home. Well, have I got news for you. Two rivers exist in San Diego's north county, The Santa Margarita River and the San Luis Rey River, although it is not something locals like to brag about. Forget that these natural corridors are home to a diverse web of flora and fauna. Forget that these rivers once carried sand to our beaches. What is important to remember is that there are property rights to protect. In another words, there is money to be made. Every part of the river is owned or controlled by some individual interest. Therefore we can not let something as trivial as scenic beauty or community well-being get in the way of the profit to be wrung from these natural resources.

Recently Biologist John Ljubenkov nominated the San Luis Rey River for federal designation as an American Heritage River. Such a distinction would entitle those caring for the river to certain economic developments, cleanup campaigns, and other programs that would focus on preserving historical and cultural resources. Sounds like a good idea, right? Well, not according to Congressmen Randy Cunningham and Ron Packard, and the special interests that pull their strings. Using the blanket excuse of property rights our elected officials killed the nomination, at the behest of two water districts. The Vista Irrigation District owns and operates the 43,000 acre Lake Henshaw that sits at the tributary of the river's headwaters.

Constructed in the early 20's the dam holding back Lake Henshaw would change the San Luis Rey River valley forever.

The VID is one of 50 members of the San Luis Rey Watershed Council, to be honest I am having trouble finding out who makes up this council.

Representative Cunningham's office is determined to make sure that the river remains under local control. Which makes sense to me as long as that "local control" does not sell out the river at every conceivable turn. As we all know, the current development paradigm holds little regard for the environment and only sees it as something to be exploited, or buried beneath parking lots and shopping centers. And since the local authorities have shirked all responsibility for maintaining any environmental balance, it only seems logical that if the river and the native species that depend on it are to survive, outside stewardship is needed.

Another reason being used to block the rivers protection is the fallacy of property rights. Whose property rights are we talking about? One of the aforementioned water districts seems to represent one individual. The San Luis Rey Water District is the cover name of landowner and grower Robert Pankey's effort to supply water from the river to growers and ranchers along the river. Mr. Pankey also planned to supply water to the proposed Rosemary's Mountain quarry, which, just by chance, would have be located on Mr. Pankey's property. Again, whose property rights are we talking about?

And since we are searching out mendacity along the river let's look at the statement by Cunningham's office that they want to keep the Feds away from local jurisdiction. On the surface that seems very noble indeed. But once you realize that the San Luis Rey Watershed Council is funded by a EPA grant, and that the Soil Conservation Service, an office of Department of the Interior, is represented on the council, Cunningham's claims of wanting to keep the federal government at arms length is hollow. And when you think about it, you will see that Congressmen Cunningham and Packard are part of the Federal Government, and that their efforts to kill the Historic Designation for the San Luis Rey River is, in itself, federal interference. Oh what tangled webs we weave.

This fight over the river has shed some light on an issue that should be of interest of all those living along the coast. Water that would normally carry sand to the coast is being diverted to the City of Vista first, and the City of Escondido second. Adding to this, sand mining operations haul away sediments for personal profit. So when those of us on the coast start wondering why there is no sand to protect our bluff top homes, we should stop blaming El Nino and start looking at our neighbors to the east. We should also ask our newly re-elected officials about their allegiance to the river barons up stream.

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